Group Grammar: Your Guide to Partying with the French Plural
French can be weird.
Grammatically, it’s all over the place.
Words have genders, you have to really make an effort to master pronominal verbs and the grammar is chock-full of exceptions.
Whether you’re working to improve your listening, understand the French news or prepare for a Francophone trip, you have to keep that complex grammar in the back of your mind.
To be fair, English has its share of exceptions as well.
Sure, one could say that French is a finicky language, moody even (French moods include the subjunctive and the conditional), just like we humans are.
On the bright side, we could say that it’s a language that’s colorful, dynamic and personality-driven—again, just like us.
Are you the strong, silent type of learner who prefers to immerse yourself in French from home or do you prefer to be entouré(e) (supported, surrounded), on social media and in real life?
Perhaps you’re a bit of both?
Well, French nouns and adjectives are the same—they exist in singular and plural forms.
Group Grammar: Your Guide to Partying with the French Plural
The Basics: Forming the Plural
Just add “s” to the noun (and change the article)
Generally, the plural of French nouns and adjectives is formed by simply adding an “s” at the end. Just like in English! The definite articles le, la and l’ (the) become les (the) in the plural. The indefinite articles un and une (a) become des (some) in the plural.
Let’s take a look at some examples with French nouns:
- Le stylo (the pen) becomes les stylos (the pens) in the plural.
- La table (the table) becomes les tables (the tables) in the plural.
Now let’s take a look at some examples in which French nouns are being modified by adjectives:
- Le stylo rouge (the red pen) becomes les stylos rouges (the red pens).
- La table ronde (the round table) becomes les tables rondes (the round tables).
One more thing: An “s” must be added to both the noun and the adjective. Agreement: a fact of French life.
So, about that “s”…what’s up with its pronunciation?
Spelling, and therefore pronunciation (and therefore reading aloud), can be tricky in French. For the most part, the little “s” we add at the end of nouns and adjectives is not pronounced, as is often the case with final consonants. There are, however, some exception cases in which it is pronounced.
When you see a plural adjective followed by a noun beginning with a vowel, the final “s” of the adjective is pronounced like a “z.”
- This applies to adjective-noun pairings like les grands elephants (the big elephants) and les jeunes athlètes (the young athletes).
When you come across a plural noun followed by a plural adjective that begins with a vowel, you can pronounce the noun’s final “s” as though it were a “z.”
- This applies to a noun-adjective pairing like les chiens agiles (the agile/graceful dogs).
When things already end in “s” (or “x”)
I know what you’re thinking. What about words that already end in “s”? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.
When you come across a word that ends in “s,” its plural form is the same as its singular form. How’s that for a good deal?
The adjective gros (fat, big, large) is a case in point:
- Le gros camion (the big truck) is les gros camions (the big trucks) in the plural.
One more thing: The definite article le still becomes les. Also, don’t forget the “s” at the end of camion !
The same deal applies when dealing with a French noun or adjective ending in “x.”
- An example of a singular noun that ends in “x” is la voix (the voice) and it becomes les voix (the voices) in the plural.
- Similarly, the masculine singular adjective jaloux (jealous) remains unchanged in the plural: L’homme jaloux (the jealous man) becomes les hommes jaloux (the jealous men).
One more thing: In terms of pronunciation, the “x” and “s” endings function in the same way.
When Things Start Getting Weird: Forming the Plural in Irregular Cases
You probably saw it coming: There are many cases in which just adding an “s” to nouns and adjectives is not enough to form the plural. Sometimes, you’ve got to do a bit more. Luckily, there are some general rules that apply, depending on the endings of the nouns and adjectives.
Nouns and adjectives ending in “-al”
When there’s a masculine singular noun or adjective ending in “-al,” its plural form usually ends in “-aux.”
- Un journal (a newspaper), which is a masculine singular noun, becomes des journaux ([some]newspapers).
- The masculine singular adjective international (international) becomes internationaux (international).
- Un journal international (an international newspaper) becomes des journaux internationaux (international newspapers).
One more thing: It’s important to note that this only applies to masculine cases. To use the feminine form of an adjective ending in “-al,” the change is regular and an “e” is added in the case of the singular, as in une magazine internationale (an international magazine). For the plural we add an “s” to the noun and the adjective to get des magazines internationales ([some] international magazines).
Exceptions: There are some notable exceptions whereby masculine singular nouns and adjectives ending in “-al” become plural by “regular” means, which is to say, we simply add an “s” to the ending.
- The plural of bal (ball, as in “masquerade ball,” dance) is bals (balls, dances).
- The plural of festival (festival) is festivals (festivals).
- The plural of banal (banal, ordinary) is banals.
- The plural of fatal (fatal, deadly) is fatals.
- The plural of final (final) is finals. Occasionally, however, you will see finaux (final) used, particularly in economic and financial contexts.
One more thing: The masculine noun mal (ache), when used in mal de tête (headache) becomes maux de tête (headaches) in the plural.
Nouns and adjectives ending in “-eau,” “-au” and “-eu”
The plural of singular nouns and adjectives ending in “-eau,” “-au” and “-eu” is most often formed by adding an “x” to the ending.
- Le château (the castle, the château) becomes les châteaux (the castles, the châteaus).
- Le plateau (the tray, the platter) becomes les plateaux (the trays, the platters).
- Le seau (the bucket) becomes les seaux (the buckets).
- Le jeu (the game) becomes les jeux (the games).
Exceptions: There are cases when we simply add an “s” to form the plural.
- In the case of the adjective bleu (blue), it become bleus (blue) in the plural.
- The masculine singular noun pneu (a tire) becomes pneus (tires) in the plural.
Nouns ending in “-ail”
Nouns that end in “-ail” in the singular generally end in “-ails” in the plural, but there are certain cases in which their endings are “-aux” in the plural.
- The masculine singular noun travail (work, job) becomes travaux (works, jobs) in the plural.
They Just Can’t Be Alone: Words That Only Exist in the Plural
There are several nouns in French that only exist in the plural. They just can’t be alone! Here’s a list of some exclusively plural nouns that you’re bound to come across. It’s important to note that each of these nouns still has a gender that you should know for the sake of agreement.
Les abats (m): giblets
Les alentours (m): neighborhood, surroundings
Les beaux-arts (m): fine arts
Les condoléances (f): condolences
Les coordonnées (f): coordinates, contact information
Les décombres (f): rubble
Les fiançailles (f): engagement
Les frais (m): expenses, charges
Les funerailles (f): funeral
Les gens (m): people
Les honoraires (m): fees
Les mathématiques (f): math
Les menottes (f): handcuffs
Les mœurs (m): morals, customs
Les obsèques (f): funeral
Les ordures (f): trash
Les représailles (f): reprisals, retaliation
Les ténèbres (f): darkness, gloom
Ch-ch-ch-changes: Nouns That Change Meaning in the Plural Form
Some French nouns are just plain fickle! Their meanings change depending on whether they’re singular or plural. Here’s a list of some of the most common ones.
- Le ciseau (m) refers to a chisel whereas les ciseaux refers to a pair of scissors.
- Le comble (m) can refer to a height, a peak or the (figurative) last straw whereas les combles refers to an attic.
- La douceur (f) refers to softness or sweetness (both literal and figurative) while les douceurs refers to either desserts or sweet talk.
- L’eau (f) is French for water in general (water in a swimming pool, drinking water, etc.) whereas les eaux refers to the water of bodies of water: river/lake/sea water.
- L’humanité (f) refers to humanity while les humanités refers to “the humanities,” the field of academic inquiry.
- Le lendemain (m) is a handy French word for saying “the next day.” In the plural, les lendemains, it’s consequences, or future prospects of something or someone.
- La mémoire (f) refers to the faculty or act of memory. In the masculine form, le mémoire (m) refers to a master’s thesis, and in the masculine plural, les mémoires (m) refers to memoirs. Whew, that’s a lot to remember!
- L’ouïe (f) refers to the (sense of) hearing whereas les ouïes refers to gills, like those of a fish.
- La pâte (f) is French for dough (as in pizza dough) whereas les pâtes refers to pasta.
- Le statut (m) refers to a status (a social status, for example), while les statuts refers to statutes, which are documented legal enactments.
- La toilette (f) refers to the overall process of getting ready (showering, brushing one’s teeth, combing one’s hair) or personal hygiene, while les toilettes is how you refer to the restroom.
- La vacance (f) refers to a vacancy, whereas les vacances is French for vacation.
How to Cozy Up Even More with the French Plural
- Listen and spot the error. Listening exercises are a great way to up your French plural game. One I recommend is “spot the error.” You see, it’s not uncommon for native French speakers to “mix up” the plural of irregular French nouns and adjectives; you could very well hear someone say les prix internationals rather than the correct les prix internationaux (international prizes), for example. I highly recommend listening to interviews and talk radio shows to hunt for these little slips of the tongue. Check out the France Culture radio show “Sur la route” (On the Road), which features interviews and conversations with people of different walks of life throughout France.
- Read. This may seem like a no-brainer because books, magazines and newspapers are chock-full of plural nouns and adjectives. The key, though, is reading actively. One thing you can do is, each time you come across the plural form of a word, convert it to the singular form and vice versa. If you’re in the mood to cozy up with a grammar book, I recommend “The Everything French Grammar Book: All the Rules You Need to Master Français” by Laura K. Lawless.
- Transcribe and transform. In a similar vein, dictées (dictations) are another great way to get cozy with French plural nouns and adjectives. A simple yet effective activity is to transcribe a short piece of audio from a podcast and then transform it with the plural. Make sure to pay attention to pronouns and agreement!
- Quiz yourself. Flashcards, oldies but goodies, are a great way to get used to plural nouns and adjectives. Check out these flashcards and this quiz for starters.
So get cozy and get to it!
The more time spent, the more mots (words) in your head.
Before you know it, your plural game will be on point.